Where are the centre parties?

A wonderful opportunity for the centre ground in NI politics is going a-begging. Why can’t the so-called parties of the centre see it? What the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance party ought to do together or in any combination is to say now: the extremist parties the DUP and Sinn Fein are too far apart to hack it. We always told you so. Here are our ideas for sorting out P&J, Irish Language act, the stadium etc.

You could write the road map in an hour. Don’t wait for another Downing St circus, sink your petty differences, do it yourselves. Gloating at Sinn Fein like
this is unhelpful and dangerous. Don’t be tempted, avoid negative, go positive. For far too long, the centre parties have chosen to remain prisoners of the last election result. They’ve dithered all summer playing the opposition game, wasting months bemoaning the behaviour the two opposite poles. Wrong game. They should realise the system they signed up to is all about government, not opposition.

It’s still not too late. Now’s your chance. David Ford has at least been tipping his toe in and out like paddling in the Atlantic. It’s not good enough, it’s a bit pathetic. Time to plunge in, no don’t wait- jump together. If you can’t see the open goal, ( to mix metaphors) you won’t deserve votes again. It’s late but not too late.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • “Time to plunge in, no don’t wait- jump together.”

    Brian, how can they ‘jump together’ when they are poles apart on the constitutional question?

  • Brian Walker

    Don’t be daft Nevin. In the real world, of course they’re not “poles apart on the constitutional question” The GFA solved or parked it and reserved it to the people. That’s the version they should adopt and take advantage of. What they suffer from is sectarian inertia, a clean different thing.

  • It seems like a good sensible idea to me but no chance of it been used in the north.

  • Padraig Caughey

    ‘Extremist’? Depends were you’re coming from I suppose. Malone Road or Cherryvalley , yes. The Shankill or Falls no. Its not reassuring to find you consider the majority of the electorate in the North are Monster Raving Loonies just because they don’t have your own particular chattering class point of view.

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    “You could write the road map in an hour. Don’t wait for another Downing St circus, sink your petty differences, do it yourselves. Don’t be tempted, avoid negative, go positive. Wrong game….It’s still not too late. Now’s your chance. David Ford has at least been tipping his toe in and out like paddling in the Atlantic. It’s not good enough, it’s a bit pathetic. Time to plunge in, no don’t wait- jump together. If you can’t see the open goal. It’s late but not too late.”

    Political analysis, has rarely been so breathless. I haven’t read that many short sentences since Jackie Collins’s last novel.

    And it’s just a matter of putting aside petty differences, eh? That should work. I expect they’ll get down to it tomorrow.

  • ggn

    “You could write the road map in an hour”

    Lets hear it then.

    “Here are our ideas for sorting out P&J;, Irish Language act, the stadium etc.”

    How does the SDLP’s position differ from SF? How do the UUP differ from the DUP?

    I think the above is a quite light weight post and suspect a little middle class arrogance frankly.

  • slug

    There is something to be said for SDLP and UUP/Conseratives meeting to see where they agree and presenting areas of common position in the next election campaign.

    It would show a level of seriousness about making powersharing work. However I cannot see them agreeing on any of the areas of policy that are currently causing problems between SF and DUP.

  • Brian Walker

    Far too many of you indulge the fearful integrity of political impotence. You actually luxuriate in it. That’s what I mean by sectarian impotence, seeking refuge in cynicism, hatred and despair. Or if you like, in that self-acknowledged characteristic, Tory pessimism. There are political techniques and ideas for tackling NI’s problems. I’ve mentioned one big one here. I’ve previously instanced the Shared Future vision but I don’t argue for that now; just for a bit of smart politics. Come on, give us some creative thinking for a change!

  • McKelvey

    Come on, give us some creative thinking for a change!
    Posted by Brian Walker on Aug 31, 2008 @ 06:41 PM

    Such as categorizing Sinn Fein and the DUP as ‘extremist’ and the SDLP, UUP, and AP as ‘centrist’ without qualification or explanation?

  • ggn

    “give us some creative thinking for a change!”

    Well, go on then. Give us a suggestion or two, I am geniunely interested.

    The SDLP & UUP would have the same problems over ILA & P&J;as the two main parties.

    As to the ‘Stadium’, I have never met a nationalist who had any strong feelings on the matter so you may have a point.

  • Rooster Cogburn

    Golly but the liberal bigotry that emerges unsheathed, now that we’re not on the Corporation’s time. Take that tripe about Eilis O’Hanlon being “unhelpful and dangerous”. How exactly’s that? Because she might be able to tease the Provos into going back to terrorism? Because they gave up terrorism in the first place because the rest of us one day secretly agreed to stop chanting, ‘stick and stones will hurt your bones, as will a pound of sem-tex‘? Really, that the poor old taxpaper had to fund the salary supporting such opinions, whether sotto voce, immanent or tediously proclaimed – quite, quite too much to bear thinking on.

    Still, I dare say if instead of earning her living in the non-government media, Eilis ever decided to become a state-employed journalist instead, well then all her opinions would of course be “helpful and safe”. (Seriously, at his age, does Brian Walker *really* need it spelling out to him that the Provos didn’t stop terrorism out of the goodness of the hearts, or because they had realised the error of their ways, but because it wasn’t working? That not merely they couldn’t achieve their goals, terrorism was actually counter-productive? That, in short, they were ‘militarily’ defeated?)

  • Smithsonian

    The centre parties have done enough of charging into to save situations that aren’t in any real danger.

    Obviously, the DUP and SF need a “bit of a ruck” because the “chuckle bros” didn’t go down very well and the core vote has been getting a bit restless.

    Once Fermanagh is out of the way, the two party coalition will resume normal business. They will still need a wee bit of friction just to keep everybody happy, but the two party coalition is determined to enjoy the spoils of victory.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it


    I think it is more difficult for the UUP and SDLP to be more centrist because it is arguable that the reason they are now ‘oppostion’ parties is that have moved too far away from their base – further movement may result in further electoral decline.

    For the Alliance who have alreay broken their reliance on a sectarian base its a different story. They have moved out of the middle and into the muddle. If, as always seemed likely, there was going to be deal on the Polis (Ulster Scos?)that required their help, they should have been unambgiuous in trying to secure agreement – instead of issuing multiple contradictory statements and dissipating any potential good press. Wee Davy Ford has been a diappointement, a bit like the Lib Dems (their sister party?)during the Iraq war in Britain – where failure of leadership let a real opportuinty to show the merit of moderation pass them by. They now look more like reluctant assistants to agreement rather leaders for compromise.

  • GavBelfast

    Plenty of people in the main political parties think the idea of a contrived White Elephant of a stadium in a rural location quite close to Lisburn – hitched to a homage to paramilitarism – would be a ludicrous waste of a few hundred millions of pounds, so clarity and openness that shows it’s a bonkers idea should not be something too difficult to agree on or at least acquiese in.

    On the wider subjects, it should never have taken a great mind to realise that the DUP and SF cannot and will not ever get things done, working together for the common good.

  • The SDLP & UUP would not have the same problems that the DUP & SF are currently having, because they have a good record at working together through negotiation and comprimise, getting the job done and making progress on all the issues under often difficult conditions.

    The DUP & SF cannot even bear to meet to discuss any of the issues. I was shocked that OFMDFM did not call a meeting of the Executive after the recent flooding. What kind of government is that?

    At the moment there is no progress. SF have made a few ‘big’ announcements about P&J;, but with absolutely no substance. The ministry belongs to the SDLP under the rules, but DUP/SF are doing all they can to change that.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it


    if the project has no merit, as you suggest, why do you think that Ulster Rugby and the GAA have apparently signed up to it?

  • ggn


    To keep up appearances and to insure that they get a slice of the action.

  • It was Sammy McNally what done it


    dont want to be ungrateful – but I dont think that is a very convincing arguement – if it was that bad they would distance themselves from it surely?

  • ggn


    I dont think the GAA would want to be seen to be the wreckers.

    But I tell you what, if there is ever a GAA game at the maze, complete with annoucements in Irish, Anhran na bhFiann and the Irish tricolour fluttering in the wind – Ill do a streak. Not a problem. Buck naked except for a banner staing clearly, it was Sammy McNally what made me do it.

  • ??

    The DUP & SF cannot even bear to meet to discuss any of the issues………

    Er… remember Trimble/Mallon, Trimble/Durkan
    A great love in that was

  • frustrated democrat

    The DUP and SF need their sectarian extremist positions in order to survive, without them they have nothing.

    They don’t do real politics only Zero Sum.

    So the SDLP/UUP/Conservative/Alliance parties are the only ones that can take the middle ground, the question they have to determine the answer to is, are the electorate sufficiently advanced to support them?

    I think they might be getting there as my straw polls seem to indicate that voters from all sections are fed up with no progress on so many fronts and petty created arguments over inconsequential party points.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it


    Hunger Streaker?

  • I’m just a daft old culchie, Brian. You don’t need to remind me 🙂

    The UUP and SDLP mission statements are in opposition to your ‘should adopt’; they epitomise the ‘tug-of-war’ dimension of the parked constitutional settlement:

    UUP: Forward into the future in the UK

    SDLP: Forward into the future in a UI

    Marching (away from each other) to history’s tune; no mention, let alone accommodation, of the opposing aspiration …

    “We will cherish all the children of the (British or Irish) nation equally …”

  • New Yorker

    If the UUP and SDLP do not work together, hopefully a new centre party will be formed to get the jobs done that governments should deliver to all the people. Brian is dead on about sectarian impotence. It does not produce results other than for only the political parties and their hangers-on. People will realize, as many have, that there is no point to the current set-up, so why have it at all? You have been trying to work this out since 1920, you have had international assistance, this is the best you can come up with? Don’t you think it is time for new non-sectarian ideas? Maybe all infusions of outside funds need to stop and you face the prospect of starving separately or working together before you get in step with reality.

  • DC

    Under Unionism and Nationalism, Britishness and Irishness both seemed to be condemned forever to becoming and never being, is it any wonder, based on their previous approaches, that today little outcomes at the Executive are being decided. It’s a follow on from their wider failings.

    Time for re-think or compromising tweaks by those ‘extremes’.

    As for stadium, I can’t see why the sports bodies would pass it up I mean look at the state of Windsor, for example – it’s a place that’s atrophying and not for trophy giving.

  • IJP


    I think the Ulster Unionists and SDLP are poles apart though. For example, I watched them at close quarters on the Bill of Rights Forum and, frankly, they agreed on precisely nothing.

    They do derive, fundamentally, from different world views. They could put together a coherent government more than the DUP and Sinn Féin – but only by a whisker.

    As for Alliance? We’ll have to see…

  • cynic

    Isnt the real issue where have the centre-ground voters gone?

  • It was Sammy McNally what done it

    After decades of kicking all colors of shit out of each other the wild men now operate in the middle ground themselves – lets wait until the remaining difficult issues ( Polis, Bobby Bowl, ILA, Education) are resolved – before concluding how sucessful or otherwise this latest round of arrangments at Stormo are.

  • This short blog piece I wrote about the Alliance party may help (the last paragraph is relevant to this discussion): http://the-dark-eleventh-hour.blogspot.com/2008/09/alliance-betray-their-weakness.html

    In essence, “cynic” (writing in the comment above this one) has it correct – “centre-ground” people do not come out and vote in Northern Ireland because they do not see NI politics as effective – and the irony of all ironies is that when a NI political party talks about “trying to take the centre ground” what they always do in effect (and the Alliance is a prime example, though the UUP are not far behind) is become even more innocuous in their statements and actions – thus exacerbating the frustration of the very voters they are trying to attract

  • An informal arrangement on shared sovereignty has been in operation since 1985 but it didn’t find its way beyond the London and Dublin political establishments in the 1998 Agreement.

    IMO a devolved administration under shared sovereignty and the merger of strands 2 and 3 would produce some additional common ground for the ‘centre’ parties to cultivate; the 50%+1 thingy is a winner for the Unionist and Nationalist ‘ourselves alone’ brigades.

  • It was Sammy McNally what done it


    does the GFA not say something along the lines that where there is no agreement between the parties the 2 govts will provide alternative arrangements – not sure how that fundamentally differs from situation from 1985-1998?

  • The reference to the ‘centre ground’ in this post is confusing. I think what is actually meant is ‘all the parties that are not the DUP or Sinn Fein’. And indeed there is an argument for all the other parties in the Assembly meeting to discuss alternatives to the mandatory coalition, or the possibility of agreeing to withdraw from the Executive (although how helpful it would be to ditch P&J;through doing this at the present time is questionable).

    But what does centre ground mean? If it’s meant to mean ‘not based on a nationalist ideology of some kind’, then when the UUP and SDLP MLAs redesignate as ‘other’ then I’ll believe it. If it means not ‘extreme’ in Left or Right terms – which I don’t think was the intention – then neither SF nor the DUP are anyway.

  • what they always do in effect (and the Alliance is a prime example, though the UUP are not far behind) is become even more innocuous in their statements and actions – thus exacerbating the frustration of the very voters they are trying to attract

    Obviosuly, it would have been much more robust to roll over and ask Peter Robinson to tickle our belly?

    I’m sorry, I do not follow the logic of that position.

  • Brian Walker

    jenny and others. The terms “extremes” and “centre” are commonly used as shorthand references to places on a spectrum, not ideology. SF and the DUP are further out on the respective nationalist and unionist axes.The UUP and the SDLP are further in. Designations are a device designed to stabilise government. I understand why the system was introduced and it may yet work. But up to now – and long term- the system with its numerous checks, balances and mutual vetoes tends to choke initiative, reinforce negative positions, confirm sectarian thinking, restrict the development of common interests inside and outside the Assembly and deny those who would work outside the twin boxes a real chance to contribute. Foreseeably , we’re stuck with it. Ironically, Peter Robinson seems to be arguing for a more flexible coalition, in which cross community consent would of course have to remain the lynchpin. This would have to be more than a crafty notion for putting pressure on SF. While I would use a long spoon to sup with him, I would like to hear his ideas given a full airing.

  • alfemo